Scientists discovered that a mummy labelled as “mummified hawk with linen and cartonnage” is actually a stillborn human baby with a rare medical condition, carefully wrapped and buried in a tiny coffin.
Researchers from Western University made the discovery when they started to CT-scan a female mummy from the Maidstone Museum in 2016. The museum decided to scan its animal mummy collection at the same time, unveiling the surprising discovery that a tiny mummy labelled as a bird was actually a human baby. Researchers took the mislabelled mummy through an extremely high-resolution micro-CT scan, a technology that enables scientists to see greater visual detail without damaging the coffin or remains.
The new scan resulted in the highest-resolution images ever conducted of a mummy fetus, showing well-formed fingers and a toes, and a skull with severe disfigurement: “The whole top part of his skull isn’t formed. The arches of the vertebrae of his spine haven’t closed. His earbones are at the back of his head….In this individual, there probably was no real brain,” explains Andrew Nelson, a bioarchaeologist and professor of anthropology at Western University.
The stillborn baby had a rare condition called anencephaly, in which the brain and the skull fails to develop properly. It’s one of two anencephalic mummies ever discovered (the last one was found in 1826). “It would have been a tragic moment for the family to lose their infant and to give birth to a very strange-looking fetus, not a normal-looking fetus at all. So this was a very special individual,” Nelson says. The baby was stillborn at 23 to 28 weeks of gestation, and raises questions about the cultural practices of ancient Egypt: was the stillborn mummified because fetuses were believed to be powerful talismans? Or might it have been a family coming to terms with grief? Though researchers have correctly identified the mummy, its true story may still remain a mystery.